After First Nation residents sickened, feds order companies to tackle benzene

Click to play video: 'Ontario chemical plant ordered to shut down'
Ontario chemical plant ordered to shut down
WATCH: Ontario chemical plant ordered to shut down – May 2, 2024

Environment and Climate Change of Canada has ordered petrochemical companies in Sarnia, Ont., to implement controls to limit emissions of the cancer-causing substance benzene.

The order comes roughly a month after high levels of benzene were detected by Aamjiwnaang First Nation, leading the community to declare a statement of emergency.

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault issued an Interim Order under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act which compels companies to take action if high levels of benzene were detected between March 1, 2023 and Feb. 29, 2024.

The interim order will be in effect for a minimum of two weeks. If passed by the governor in council, it could last up to two years.

Click to play video: 'Aamjiwnaang First Nation declares state of emergency over benzene levels'
Aamjiwnaang First Nation declares state of emergency over benzene levels

Petrochemical companies that detected concentrations of benzene above 29 micrograms per cubic metre (μg/m3) measured over a two-week period during that time would be required to implement vapour control measures on benzene storage tanks, the minister said. Ontario’s Environment Ministry has set the annual average limit for benzene at 0.45 ug/m3. The province does not regulate the hourly limit.

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Asked why it took nearly a month for Ottawa to respond to the crisis near Aamjiwnaang First Nation, Guilbeault said his department acted “promptly.”

“We’re putting in place an emergency order today specifically regarding one company which is responsible for those benzene emissions,” Guilbeault said. “I would challenge you to try and find an instance where the federal government was so quick to act.”

Meanwhile, Ontario’s environment ministry has suspended the operating approval for chemical plant Ineos Styrolution until major repairs are made including removing all benzene storage from the site and fixing leaky equipment.

On April 16, Aamjiwnaang First Nation, which is surrounded by industrial facilities, recorded levels that were 22 times higher than the amount that the Ontario government deems to be safe. Global News has previously reported that average levels of the chemical at the First Nations’ northern border surpassed 100 ug/m3 for 14 hours between April 1 and April 16, reaching as high as 150.5 ug/m3 on April 14.

Residents told Global News they became ill, suffering from headaches, sore throats, nausea and dizziness, with some sent to hospital.

Click to play video: 'Ont. chemical plant temporarily shuts down after residents get sick'
Ont. chemical plant temporarily shuts down after residents get sick

Under the provincial order issued by Ontario, the facility must meet certain conditions, including suspending production operations at the facility and installing full vapour control on vessels containing benzene, and implementing a comprehensive benzene monitoring and community notification plan.

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Ineos Styrolution did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

The company has said Ontario’s timeline to address the conditions at its plant is “simply unrealistic” and filed an appeal against the provincial order on May 15.

“The imposition of the significantly reduced benzene emission limits as set out in the Order is crippling to INEOS’ operation and will undoubtedly cause a rippling effect on the refineries that account for a significant portion of the Sarnia-Lambton area economy,” a lawyer for the company wrote in the appeal obtained by Global News.

Click to play video: 'Ontario takes action against chemical plant after First Nation members fall ill'
Ontario takes action against chemical plant after First Nation members fall ill

It disputes new benchmarks in the provincial order which it says are “dramatically lower” than previous limits and lacking “a robust rationale”.

The company is also fighting the province over a requirement that the company develop a plan to immediately notify the public when benzene emissions surpass a certain threshold.

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The company argued that the mandatory and “immediate” public notification requirements are based on an “arbitrary percentage.”

“INEOS proposes that notification be provided instead to the [Ontario environment ministry] with a proposal for public notification if warranted by the circumstances,” the company wrote.

The company has previously said that it “detected no emissions exceeding the prescribed limits in the weeks before the initial MECP order issued on April 16, 2024.”

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